Greener Grows the Valley

Napa vintners are restoring historic wineries with a focus on sustainability

Long before the tourist hordes ever heard of Napa Valley, before the wineries began erecting opulent palaces and temples to house their tasting rooms, before there even was a wine boom in the region, and well before the famous blind taste test of 1976 in which California wines bested their venerable French counterparts—before all of this, Jacob Beringer came to Napa with dreams of his own.

He got his start as a cellar foreman for Charles Krug, one of the first vintners to establish a commercial winery in the valley, in 1861. When 215 nearby acres went up for sale, Beringer persuaded his brother Frederick to finance the purchase. The Beringer Brothers Winery, as they called their fledgling enterprise, soon began producing award-winning wines aged in barrels that were stored in hand-carved tunnels. As the business expanded, Frederick decided to build a mansion where the brothers could entertain lavishly. In 1883, he started construction on the Rhine House, reminiscent of his family's residence in Mainz, Germany, on the west bank of the Rhine River.

If Beringer's Victorian mansion looks almost exactly as it did upon completion in 1884, that's because it has undergone a comprehensive restoration—making it one of several early Napa landmarks that have recently been revived. Not only are contemporary vintners preserving structures from the valley's earliest days as a winemaker's paradise, they are also outfitting the buildings for the 21st century, incorporating numerous ecofriendly features. I have come to Napa to see a few of these projects. And if tasting some wine helps me convene with the spirits of the pioneers who first planted vines in this valley—well, so much the better.

If You Go ... 

Beringer Vineyards is located at 2000 Main St., just north of downtown St. Helena, Calif. For information and hours, go to beringer.com or call 866.708.9463 for more details.

Charles Krug, located just a short drive north at 2800 Main St., is open daily from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Visit charleskrug.com or call 800.682.5784 for further information. 

Napa Valley Vintners is located at 1475 Library Lane in St. Helena. Visitors can park and inspect the newly renovated exterior of the historic winery; the office space inside is not open to the public.

"Rhine House is the icon of the Beringer label," says Tom Johnson, the winery's director of hospitality, when I meet him in front of the mansion on a warm September morning. Indeed, Frederick spared no expense to make his house the signature feature of the property—and the entire valley. He hired Albert Schroepfer, a German architect based in San Francisco, and spent what was then a significant sum: $28,000. Six thousand dollars alone went toward 41 stained-glass windows, which decorate the mansion's 17 rooms. I think back to when Napa truly was an American Eden, how the Rhine House must have stood in sharp relief against the virgin landscape, rising above the new vineyards that dotted the valley floor.

Not long ago, this historic house had fallen into disrepair. The front door was locked for fear that merely opening and closing it would damage the stained glass. And the possibility of earthquakes posed a constant danger. In 2007, Beringer Vineyards embarked on a $5 million restoration, Johnson says, because "it was our responsibility to preserve it."

Visitors who now sidle up to one of the mansion's bars for a tasting can admire the restored inlaid wood floors, redwood ceilings, carved mahogany fireplaces, and stained-glass windows. Invisible to visitors: seismic retrofitting, accomplished by drilling holes into the walls and inserting steel rods, then bracing the walls to the floors. Also invisible: a new geothermal system, installed under the front lawn, where workers dug 30 wells 300 feet deep so that groundwater (which remains at a temperature of 55 degrees) could be channeled into the basement as part of the HVAC system. The limited data collected so far suggest cost savings of somewhere between five and 20 percent. "Even though the system's going to take years to pay off," Johnson says, "it was the responsible thing to do."

After my tour with Johnson, I make the short drive north on Route 29 to the winery where Jacob Beringer got his start. Charles Krug was a Prussian immigrant who emerged as Napa's leading vintner in the early 1870s. In 1943, the Mondavi family purchased his property and went on to become one of the valley's most celebrated winemaking dynasties. Brothers Peter and Robert Mondavi were soon producing crisp white wines that achieved national recognition, with Life magazine conducting a tasting in the mid-1950s that named Krug's Traminer (better known today as Gewürtztraminer) as the premiere California wine.

An unseasonably wet spring has significantly delayed the beginning of the harvest, but a few days of triple-digit temperatures have now spurred workers into action. "Last night was the last pick of the Sauvignon Blanc," Jeff Richardson, Charles Krug's director of production, tells me. "We brought in 90 tons."

I'm standing with Richardson inside the Redwood Cellar, where hundreds of barrels of the 2009 select Cabernet are stacked. Charles Krug's first winery, a wood structure built in 1861, stood on this site but suffered major fire damage in 1874. He rebuilt the winery out of stone, and it eventually became a storage facility for Mondavi family wine production. Restoration of the stone building began in 2007, Richardson tells me:  "The Mondavi family wanted to make this building a landmark again."

Workers added two and a half inches of insulation under the red corrugated metal roof to reduce energy costs and also seismically retrofitted the building. He shows off the original redwood tank, a 9,600-gallon, nearly 20-foot-tall behemoth that workers rebuilt as a museum piece to show how the Mondavis once stored their wines.

Ultimately, the Redwood Cellar will become a functioning winery, Richardson says. One side of the building, now cordoned off with plastic, will be transformed into retail space, where visitors can sample different vintages and, through a new glass wall, glimpse ongoing wine production.

We make the short walk from the cellar to Krug's 1881 Carriage House. Now, as part of the $9.6 million restoration project, the building has been converted into event space for corporate functions and weddings. All the original wood beams supporting the 30-foot-high cathedral ceiling were cleaned and restored, and redwood salvaged from old storage tanks was used to fabricate a new floor—another ecofriendly touch. Harvested in the 1940s, that wood was cut from the center of the trees—no knots, straight grain, pure heart, Richardson says.

"There's a lot of history here," Richardson says as we admire the valley views from an open door. "The family didn't want to see it go away."

The decision to preserve and reuse these historic buildings comes in part from a desire "to be able to tell a real authentic story about yourself and your history," says Steve Tradewell. He's the finance and administration director for the Napa Valley Vintners, a trade organization that promotes the region. This same impulse led his group to restore one of Napa's long-abandoned "ghost" wineries  for its new headquarters.

Built by the Austrian immigrant Stephen Jackse between 1905 and 1913, the Jackse Winery operated until 1951 but was consigned to storage in recent decades, the main wood barn looking increasingly forlorn. Now, following a $3.5 million restoration, the barn has been reborn as office space, with the original wood walls enclosing modern office space.

Balancing sustainable features—solar panels, a geothermal heating and cooling system, recycled blue-jean insulation, and a bio-swale drainage system designed to capture sediment from runoff—with a historically sympathetic restoration proved no simple feat, Tradewell says. But he hopes other vintners will follow his group's lead.

Indeed, another ghost winery will soon undergo a similar restoration. On a 90-degree afternoon, I drive along Conn Valley Road, a winding dead-end route that runs east of the town of St. Helena. The congestion and development of Route 29 give way to rolling hills dense with oak trees, and as the cars all but disappear, the landscape grows quiet, serene. Around one of the curves my destination appears: the old Franco-Swiss Winery.

Nearly 15 years ago, Leslie Mansfield and her husband, Richard, newly arrived from Oregon (where he had owned an organic vineyard), were looking to start a label in Napa. Leslie Mansfield remembers what she said to her husband when they drove along this road and first saw the dilapidated buildings, untouched for decades: "Oh my God, Richard, stop the car. There's our house; there's our winery."

It took three years to persuade the owner to sell, but the Mansfields finally bought the property and restored the c. 1890 manor house. But they didn't have the capital to restore the barn and the stone building that housed the winery. Instead, they rented a friend's equipment to produce their wine. Now, after years of saving, they're finally ready to embark on an estimated $12 million restoration.

Why not just build a new winery? On the screened-in porch of the manor house, Leslie pours two glasses from a bottle of 2006 Mansfield Cabernet Reserve and settles on one word: authenticity. There's history in these centuries-old buildings, history that should be revived, she says. "Nobody really knows about the first life of the Napa Valley. I call it the first growth."

Built in 1870 by three men who had worked at Charles Krug, the Franco-Swiss Winery at its peak produced more than 100,000 gallons of wine, shipping it as far as Tahiti. Then came the phylloxera epidemic, an infestation of insects that ravaged the vineyards in Napa in the late 1800s, followed by the National Prohibition Act, which brought the industry to a standstill. The winery was eventually abandoned and later used as a manufacturing plant for perlite, an ingredient in plaster and mortar.

Mansfield envisions the site's rebirth as she gives me a tour. The barn will become office space; the old stone winery, which still harbors rusted perlite equipment, will start producing wine again, with dining tables that can be cranked down from the ceiling for tastings and other gatherings. (One of the perks of becoming a vintner, I gather from Mansfield, is the endless parties.) The restoration will include such ecofriendly features as a geothermal system and a cistern to capture rainwater for irrigation; wood will be salvaged from a dilapidated shed to fashion a new floor.

When Mansfield climbs a set of wobbly metal stairs to show me the winery's second floor, she's met at the top by a small rattlesnake, bringing our tour to an abrupt end. The momentary shock of encountering the snake, poised to strike, can't dim Mansfield's giddiness, however. "I think it's going to be beautiful," she says of the restored winery as we stand outside, squinting in the mid-day sun. "I can't wait."

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